February 24, 2016 | By Parmjeet Singh
New Delhi: International protection of human rights is in danger of unravelling as short-term national self-interest and draconian security crackdowns have led to a wholesale assault on basic freedoms and rights, warned Amnesty International as it launched its annual assessment of human rights around the world.
“Your rights are in jeopardy: they are being treated with utter contempt by many governments around the world,” said Salil Shetty, Secretary General of Amnesty International.
“Millions of people are suffering enormously at the hands of states and armed groups, while governments are shamelessly painting the protection of human rights as a threat to security, law and order or national ‘values’.”
Human rights under threat globally
Amnesty International is warning of an insidious and creeping trend undermining human rights which has come from governments deliberately attacking, underfunding or neglecting institutions that have been set up to help protect our rights.
“Not only are our rights under threat, so are the laws and the system that protect them. More than 70 years of hard work and human progress lies at risk,” said Salil Shetty.
The United Nations’ human rights bodies, the International Criminal Court, and regional mechanisms such as the Council of Europe and the Inter American Human Rights system, are being undermined by governments attempting to evade oversight of their domestic records.
Amnesty International is calling on governments to politically support and fully fund systems that exist to uphold international law and to protect people’s rights.
Rights under threat on a national level
Amnesty International has documented how many governments have brazenly broken international law in 2015 in their national contexts: more than 122 states tortured or otherwise ill-treated people and 30 or more illegally forced refugees to return to countries where they would be in danger. In at least 19 countries, war crimes or other violations of the “laws of war” were committed by governments or armed groups.
Amnesty International is also warning of a worrying trend among governments increasingly targeting and attacking activists, lawyers and others who work to defend human rights.
“Instead of recognizing the crucial role these people play in society, many governments have deliberately set out to strangle criticism in their country. They have broken their own laws in their crackdowns against citizens,” said Salil Shetty.
Amnesty International says this has partly been down to the reaction of many governments to evolving security threats in 2015.
“The misguided reaction of many governments to national security threats has been the crushing of civil society, the right to privacy and the right to free speech; and outright attempts to make human rights dirty words, packaging them in opposition to national security, law and order and ‘national values’. Governments have even broken their own laws in this way,” said Salil Shetty.
UN in desperate need of reinvigoration
The United Nations and its offices for protecting human rights and refugees have suffered severely from the hostility and neglect of recalcitrant governments in 2015.
“The UN was set up to ‘save succeeding generations from the scourge of war’ and to ‘reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights’ but it is more vulnerable than it ever has been in the face of enormous challenges,” said Salil Shetty.
Many governments have wilfully thwarted UN action to prevent mass atrocities or hold to account their perpetrators, and rejected or poured scorn on its recommendations to improve human rights nationally.
The Syrian conflict is one horrific example of the catastrophic human consequences of a systemic failure of the UN to fulfil its vital role in upholding rights and international law and ensuring accountability.
The incoming UN Secretary General, who will be elected later this year and who will take up the post in January 2017, will inherit an organization that has achieved much but is in desperate need of reinvigoration, Amnesty International says. The organization is calling for UN member states and the UN Security Council to show brave new thinking in moving towards reform, starting with the process by which it elects a new Secretary General.
“UN member states have an historic opportunity this year to reinvigorate the organization by supporting a strong candidate for Secretary General with the commitment, personal fortitude and vision needed to push back against any states bent on undermining human rights at home and internationally,” said Salil Shetty.
To achieve this, Amnesty International says the election process must be fair and transparent and ensure that the views of candidates on the major human rights challenges facing the UN are known and understood.
Call to action
“The world today is facing many challenges which, at their source, have been created or prolonged by governments who have played politics with people’s lives. Refugees are suffering in their millions as conflicts proliferate, and armed groups deliberately attack civilians and commit other grave abuses,” said Salil Shetty.
“It is within world leaders’ power to prevent these crises from spiralling further out of control. Governments must halt their assault on our rights and strengthen the defences the world has put in place to protect them. Human rights are a necessity, not an accessory; and the stakes for humankind have never been higher.”
Amnesty International has documented grave violations of economic and social and political and civil rights in 2015 in many countries.
Examples of national attacks on human rights and the institutions which are there to protect them include, but are by no means limited, to:
Angola: using defamation laws and state security legislation to harass, arrest and detain those peacefully expressing their views; and publicly snubbing UN recommendations on its rights record.
Burundi: systematic killings and other widespread violent tactics by the security forces; and efforts to suppress the human rights community in the country.
China: escalating crackdown against human rights defenders and a series of sweeping laws in the name of ‘national security’.
Egypt: the arrest of thousands, including peaceful critics, in a ruthless crackdown in the name of national security, the prolonged detention of hundreds without charge or trial and the sentencing of hundreds of others to death.
Hungary: sealing off its borders to thousands of refugees in dire need; and obstructing collective regional attempts to help them.
Israel: maintaining its military blockade of Gaza and therefore collective punishment of the 1.8 million inhabitants there, as well as failing, like Palestine, to comply with a UN call to conduct credible investigations into war crimes committed during the 2014 Gaza conflict.
Gambia: torture, enforced disappearances and the criminalization of LGBTI people; and utter refusal to co-operate with the UN and regional human rights mechanisms on issues including freedom of expression, enforced disappearance and the death penalty.
Kenya: extrajudicial executions, enforced disappearances and discrimination against refugees in its counter-terrorism operations; and attempts to undermine the International Criminal Court and its ability to pursue justice.
Mexico: grave record of human rights abuses including 27,000 disappeared; and its harsh response to UN criticism of the widespread use of torture, enabling almost complete impunity despite increased complaints.
Pakistan: the severe human rights failings of its response to the horrific Peshawar school massacre including its relentless use of the death penalty; and its policy on international NGOs giving authorities the power to monitor them and close them down if they are considered to be “against the interests” of the country.
Russia: repressive use of vague national security and anti-extremism legislation and its concerted attempts to silence civil society in the country; its shameful refusal to acknowledge civilian killings in Syria and its callous moves to block Security Council action on Syria.
Saudi Arabia: brutally cracking down on those who dared to advocate reform or criticize the authorities; and committing war crimes in the bombing campaign it led in Yemen while obstructing the establishment of a UN-led inquiry into violations by all sides in the conflict.
Slovakia: widespread discrimination against Roma remained despite years of efforts by national and regional groups, resulting in the European Commission having to resort to infringement proceedings against the country.
Syria: killing thousands of civilians in direct and indiscriminate attacks with barrel bombs and other weaponry and through acts of torture in detention; and enforcing lengthy sieges of civilian areas, blocking international aid from reaching starving civilians.
Thailand: arresting peaceful critics for activities including staging plays, posting Facebook comments and displaying graffiti; and the military authorities’ dismissal of international calls not to extend its own powers to excessively restrict rights and silence dissent in the name of “security”.
UK: continued use of mass surveillance in the name of countering terrorism; and its regressive attempts to evade oversight by the European Court of Human Rights.
USA: the continuing operation of the Guantanamo detention centre, an example of the grave consequences of its ¨global war on terror”; and its failure to prosecute those responsible for torture and enforced disappearances.
Venezuela: continuing lack of justice in cases of grave human rights violations and constant attacks against human rights defenders; and its continuing denunciation of the American Convention of Human Rights following its earlier withdrawal from the jurisdiction of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, denying victims of violations access to justice.
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